TxLIHIS 20th Anniversary: The Origins of TxLIHIS

2008 is the 20th anniversary of the Texas low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS).

In 2000 the board of directors of TxLIHIS asked the staff to begin collecting the recollections of people who founded TxLIHIS and who have been involved with the organization over the years.  The purpose was to provide some understanding of the organization’s work and values to new board members and staff.  This document represents the recollections, a sort of oral history, of people associated with the work of TxLIHIS as well as the activities of the organization.

The interviews were conducted and the paper written by Joshua Knobe, a remarkable young man who contributed much to TxLIHIS both through producing this history and through the development of the web based Texas Low Income Housing Advisor.  Someday his remarkable contributions will be a chapter in this history.

The interviews were recorded on tape and then transcribed and edited.  Grammar and style was not corrected.  This history is thus intended to be informal and conversational.

We are grateful to the people who generously agreed to be interviewed for this history.

In this second installment (read the first installment) we look back at origins of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS).


John Henneberger     co-director Texas Low Income Housing Information Service

Karen Paup     co-director Texas Low Income Housing Information Service

Sister Amalia Rios, CSC     former board member and community leader in the Guadalupe neighborhood of Austin (Silver Spring, Maryland)

Kathy Tyler     Motivation, Education and Training, Inc., founding board member TxLIHIS, Austin


JOHN HENNEBERGER: You see, I approach this from the perspective that you have to understand some history before you can understand the nature of this organization as it exists today. The organization’s values lie in a historical experience that went on prior to the actual birth of the organization.

I mean, it isn’t really necessary to pinpoint the precise moment when this organization came into existence. What’s important is to understand that the organization came about because we wanted to promote a particular approach to dealing with poverty. The organization itself came about fairly late in the process. There were all these community organizations working independently. And then gradually we began to see that it was necessary to have an organization that would be speak to promoting their values because it was so clear that the low-income communities were able to do some very extraordinary things on their own. All these things were being demonstrated individually within these various neighborhood groups. And then it became necessary to create an institution that would say, “Hey! Look at this – look at what these folks are doing. This is really a good thing. Government should approach public policy – the citizens should demand that government approach public policy – from this approach, because look how successful it is.”

So it all comes out of this neighborhood movement, which was a really unusual time in the Southern states. It was a time when poor people were directing programs themselves, when there was a democratic notion that poor people would decide what they needed and then go out and get it. They would advocate for what they needed; they would identify the resources; they would form institutions within their community that were new institutions; and they would deliver; they would bring those services home. Well, that’s the core value of this organization.

The groundwork for all this community organizing has to be traced back to the War on Poverty programs. These programs were based on the view that real change has to come up from the community; it can’t come down institutionally from the state or the federal government providing services. It has to come up through people at the grassroots developing institutions, securing funding, growing those institutions and bringing the services to their local communities. The notion was that communities would have elected representatives to boards. And the redevelopment of poverty communities would be directed through elected community representatives. And the federal government would provide money for a neighborhood center and a director, which would be the implementing entity for the changes that the community-elected representatives would propose. It was a very good idea. In the 70s, there were elected neighborhood boards in different communities – low-income minority communities in Austin. And those boards wanted to fix things in the local communities: they wanted to improve housing; they wanted to bring in paved streets; they wanted to bring in sewers; they wanted to bring in jobs, libraries, community services and other things.

They had neighborhood elections, and people would come out on Saturdays, and they would vote for board members for the neighborhood. And then they would control the neighborhood center and the director, and at that time there was federal funding there to have activities going on.  You have to understand the importance of these elections. They were hotly contested. People campaigned. And it was expected that you would do something when you were elected to those neighborhood boards. And because that expectation was there, you had poor people, people of color, who were trying to figure out how to get the services brought into the neighborhood. And so they were out looking: where is the money, where are the resources, how do we get these things fixed, that type of thing.

Legal Aid was another critical factor, because prior to the Reagan administration, Legal Aid was really the people’s lawyer for the poor, and they could represent people and communities on broad issues. Back then, Karen was working for Legal Aid up in Dallas, and I was working for Legal Aid here in Austin.

I was assigned to work with the neighborhood groups. I was called an ‘investigator’. My job was to bring litigation into the office and work out a strategy for it – for the attorneys to sue the city, to sue the banks, to sue whoever needed to be sued to get the services advocated by the neighborhood groups. So we spent all of our time going to neighborhood meetings with these elected boards, and we gradually got into community organizing. We worked n Clarksville, Guadalupe and in other neighborhoods.

KATHY TYLER: From 1975 to 1981, I was working as staff at the Clarksville Neighborhood Center.

Back then, John Henneberger was a volunteer at Clarksville. He was a history student who was doing oral histories on African-American population and migration studies. And so he spent a lot of time interviewing Clarksville residents and became interested in their issues.

John was doing a study on freed slave settlements in Austin.  Most of them no longer exist. Clarksville is the only one that’s still in existence. Anyway, it’s my belief that the only reason Clarksville didn’t get demolished like other freed slave settlements is because it was slated for highway development. There was one highway cutting through the western end of Clarksville. And there was another east-west highway that was mostly supposed to follow an existing street, but it was gonna make a little dip so that it would just bypass all those pretty houses in West Austin and just totally take out what was left of Clarksville. In the 60’s when urban renewal was very popular, I think the only reason they didn’t do urban renewal in Clarksville was because the highway was gonna come through. The residents started organizing in the late 1960’s and early 1970s to kill the highway. They weren’t successful with that, but they were successful with getting the city council to squelch plans to develop an east-west expressway.

When both John and I started working there, the city was saying that it wasn’t going to pursue plans to do that east-west expressway. But the neighborhood was still very fearful of it, and it did sort of resurface every now and then. Eventually, the residents of Clarksville started asking John to help them. Since he was asking them to spend their time giving him information for school, they asked him also to spend some of his time helping them with what was important to them. And so John worked as a volunteer for many years.

We both went through the same thing where the communities really educated us about what it was they wanted, they needed. They always spoke for themselves at city council meetings and other events. They always made their own decisions. But we could sometimes facilitate things.

Since John was a history student, he came up with the idea of applying to the National Register of Historic Places. The idea really resonated with Clarksville residents because it was one way of ensuring that no federal money was spent to build, and the city was not going to build an expressway without federal money. I mean, the reason Clarksville residents were so enthusiastically supportive of putting the neighborhood on the national register was not so much because of the historical designation but because it protected them from displacement.  It gave them a say in whether federal funds could be spent – it doesn’t prohibit federal funds from being spent, but the State Historical Board would get involved if anyone tried to build a highway. It’s a layer of protection.

Then a lot of low-income residents were facing displacement just because the higher income people wanted to move in. Clarksville was close to downtown; it was a popular place to live. The low-income people felt like they were going to get kicked out. So one strategy they had was to develop low income housing, have housing for their own residents, control it themselves, for neighborhood preservation as well as to provide housing.

And so, we established a nonprofit corporation, the Clarksville Community Development Corporation. All of the members of the corporation were residents of the community. All of the officers were residents – they were elected by the members of the organization and became the board.

Then later, as we started working with other communities, we found that they were all in different degrees of forming organizations. Either they had associations already or they had organized for or against something. It was very easy just to meet with them and say: “Would you like to do what Clarksville has done?” And everyone was very interested in doing it. It was just a matter of introducing that model.

JOHN HENNEBERGER: Particularly, in 1979 in the Guadalupe neighborhood. You see, there was a museum in Guadalupe, and the museum was run by this group of white ladies, the ‘Daughters of the Republic of Texas.’ Well, those white ladies never did like the fact that their museum was in this brown neighborhood – you know, there were all these Hispanic people around.

So in 1979, the Congressman, at the behest of the white ladies, proposed to tear down fourteen homes of Hispanic families around the museum and create an urban park around the area, to remove the entire neighborhood around the museum, so that those poor Hispanic families wouldn’t ‘intrude’ on the lovely character of historic museum. When we found out about it, we went and told the neighborhood association. We went to the parish church, Guadalupe Church, and they said: “Oh Lord! We don’t want to do this!” So we helped people organize, and do yard signs and go down to city council and protest.

SISTER AMALIA RIOS: I was born in Guadalupe; I went to school Guadalupe; and I came back to work in Guadalupe after I entered the Sisters of the Holy Cross.

Well, one day, John came into our church and gave us some information. We knew that the Daughters of the Republic of Texas were trying to build a park and that it was going to be a national park. What the city did not tell us was – I’m not sure about the number, but like 18 homes would be destroyed for the park.  That’s the information that John was responsible for getting us.

People became very interested, and we decided that we had already been put out by the city before, moved from our original place in West Austin, and we weren’t going to let them do it again. And so, with the help of Legal Aid and Kathy Tyler, we held meetings to find out what it was all about, what our properties would be worth and whether we wanted to save the neighborhood or sell out. Of course the majority of people wanted to stay, because our whole support system was there, the church was there; we were right near the University; we were downtown; we were near the park, the hospital; our grandparents lived in the area; and our natural babysitters, which were relatives, were right in the area.  So it was like if we moved out of there, if we got kicked out, it would kind of destroy our identities in a way.

And so John and the director of Legal Aid and a lot of people met with us every week for I don’t know how many years. They would do the research, and they would present it and they would tell us where they had gotten it, what records – we could go check it out and everything.  In the end, we decided that we were sitting on a gold mine, as far as our culture was concerned, as far as our identity and our resources.

The Daughters invited us to talk about the park. And I said: “If you want us to play some role in the park, what role would we play? ” and they said: “Oh, you would have your little tortilla stands and taco stands.” I thought I would faint. I thought: “Those people don’t know what they’re saying. So we said: “You want us to sell tortillas at the park? That’s our part in it?” Well, that’s what they had in the plans for us.

We challenged the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in court. The whole park would have worked out financially because they were using the fact that they were in a poor area. So the money that was coming to the city to help poor people was going to this park. We said: “No, no, what we need are homes more than a park.” So we did a class action suit. It was many nights at the city council and everywhere. And the outcome was that we won the suit. The court declared that they weren’t allowed to use the money. It was an illegal use of grants that were supposed to go to poor people.

And then we went after the money that they had gotten. It was like $668,000. We said: “Well, the money’s there, and they can’t use it. Why can’t we use it?”

JOHN HENNEBERGER: So the city said to Guadalupe: “We have some money set aside for this project. If you guys know what to do with it, you take the money and do with it whatever you think is best.”  The neighborhood so succeeded in turning around the urban renewal project that the city gave them the money they were going use for the urban renewal project, and they told them: “Well, do what you think is right with the money.” It was kind of a challenge. I don’t think the city leaders really thought Guadalupe could pull it off.  The neighborhood had no staff; it had no organization and no structure.

So I left Legal Aid in late 1979 and took the job as director of the new neighborhood development corporation – it was one of the earliest incorporated neighborhood organizations in Austin – and I worked for Guadalupe from late 1979 through that period of time when TxLIHIS came into existence – and even after that time.

SISTER AMALIA RIOS: By then, we were meeting once a week and developing a plan about what we were going to do. The strategy was to set aside some of the money to buy part of the land, specifically the four corners of the neighborhood.  It would be kind of like a strength -like a physical strength that these corners where owned by the neighborhood.  And then so much was set aside for anyone who needed their house fixed.  And then so much was set aside for affordable housing.  Our architect was Tom Hatch, and he was very creative.  All of the time we were being shown plans for the houses and the neighborhood and asked: “How would you like this?” or “What would you like here?” We were part of the planning at every step.  And that’s how the people in the neighborhood really became involved with each other, not just with their little piece of things, but with each other.

KAREN PAUP: And then in 1986-88, we again had an advocacy role in trying to get those city housing bonds passed. We kept switching between advocating that housing policy has to be directed to benefit low income people and – on the other side – proving that the housing can be built, putting real examples out there, real models of good housing.

JOHN HENNEBERGER: The climate was one of change by virtue of the fact that a progressive city council had taken over. There was a sense of progressive optimism. We decided that that council had to do something big for poor communities. And it had to be a neighborhood-based effort. The neighborhoods that elected the council were largely white neighborhoods. The black and Hispanic neighborhoods were less organized, less powerful. We saw the housing tool as a way to empower the black and Hispanic neighborhoods and lower-income white neighborhoods in a way that the wealthy white neighborhoods had been empowered when they elected the council. And so it was as an extension of that that got people going.

We needed money to do it. So we began to think: “Well, we could pass a bond referendum.” If we can elect at the polls a neighborhood-based council, then we can pass a referendum in a Southern city that had never allocated any local funds for social programs. We believed that we could test it and push and get a housing bond issue. The goal was to get $22 million. By today’s standards, it wasn’t much. Back then, it was a lot of money.

KAREN PAUP: The first thing was – this again was something that Kathy started – was the idea that the city should sell general obligation bonds to fund low-income housing. And we formed a coalition of people that met every Saturday morning in this attorney’s office.

We’d sit there every Saturday morning and try to figure out how we could get the city to pass these bonds. It was a big group, all kinds of people. We figured out how to get that bond issue up, although in the end it didn’t pass – for various reasons; that’s kind of another story – but we kept meeting, and we kept trying to figure out what we could do. So we had this sort of coalition thing going, and we were thinking about broader things than the things that paid our salaries.

JOHN HENNEBERGER: We’d go meet at the office of this remarkable man named Ed Wendler. He was a lawyer and a lobbyist and a real power around here. At the time, he was working for this really conservative guy, the biggest homebuilder in town. But the homebuilders figured that they needed to reach out to the liberals. And so the hired Ed, this lobbyist with liberal connections.

We had endless conversations. Karen, Kathy and a handful of others of us went, and we pounded on Ed and Ed’s friends about how this had to be about the poor, about how it had to be tied to neighborhoods, about how it had to be the type of thing where the money flowed through community organizations. It had to build power at the community level. It couldn’t be a top-down type of housing program. It couldn’t be anything that went into homebuilders’ pockets. It had to be a progressive grassroots poverty housing program that built the empowerment of low-income neighborhoods as a vehicle to deliver the housing. We were going to use housing as an organizing tool. And we fought, and we fought, and we fought. We fought every week. We locked up into a huge battle with these guys. We never quite resolved it. We finally got to a bond issue proposal that we hammered out, but we never could past the question of who was going to get the money -whether it was going to flow through the community organizations or whether it was gonna go to the homebuilders. And so we went into the election, and we were still fighting in the middle of the election.

KAREN PAUP: The argument over the income targeting and the developer’s role in that argument made a lot of liberals think that it was a developer bailout. And so a group of neighborhood activists started working against it. You know, that group of white neighborhood activists who were in power at the time. So they weren’t for it. And we were still trying to work out the income targeting. By the time we got to the vote and got past that, the economy had really turned down. We had about a month to run a whole campaign, which was very little time. And so we got 42% of the vote.

JOHN HENNEBERGER: But out of that fight and advocacy, it became clear that there were issues that needed attention here. Even in a progressive political climate, there was a need for research; there was a need for directed advocacy. There was a need for organizing of people into a political coalition, so that the pressure could be put on the government to move policy toward a more progressive end. And that was the genesis of TxLIHIS.

The effort to structure a bond issue was sort of the birth event of this organization. It pitted the community activists and progressives against the real estate people and the builders and said: there needs to be a voice for progressive housing policy, an institutionalized voice for progressive housing policy in order to counter the institutionalized existence of the builders and the realtors and the homebuilders and all those other guys.

KAREN PAUP: Well, there’s another gearshift here, because we’re talking about citywide organizing and the need for a citywide effort on housing policy, but TxLIHIS is a statewide organization. And that’s why, I think, our seeing that other states were putting state money into housing and community development was a critical piece. We went to New York and Boston to see what other neighborhood groups did in the way of housing. And what really struck us there was that their states participated; their states put in money. And we realized that the other big states in this country – California, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, the other populous states – were putting state money into housing. And Texas didn’t put in anything. So it seemed like there ought to be something that pushed Texas. There ought to be some kind of statewide effort.

JOHN HENNEBERGER: The organization was really was forced on us. It wasn’t like anybody consciously thought it through… Well, maybe Kathy… Kathy had more conscious thought than a lot of us.

KATHY TYLER: From ’83 to ’88, I was working with a group called Motivation, Education and Training (MET). I had started at the city level and then, with MET, was working at the statewide level. MET worked with farmworker populations. We did housing work in the Panhandle, in West Texas, in East Texas around the Bryan Area and in other areas. That really expanded my knowledge base of what was going on housing-wise statewide.

Texas had some of the most severe housing needs in the United States, so there was certainly a need. But the government seemed a little behind in terms of working on the issue. We knew that there were some housing programs that the federal government was going to require matching funds for, but Texas had never put any money into housing other than what came from the federal government. There was no policy at the state level for housing. There were very few programs.

I guess it was while I was working with MET that I also became more involved with the Rural Housing Coalition. And a little bit with the National Low Income Housing Information Service. And I started to learn about other statewide coalitions around housing. There was no such thing in Texas. So it seemed like the advocates needed to come together and work for some housing improvement statewide. We had had some success in Austin, and we wanted to see similar things work statewide.

There was a National Low Income Housing Information Service that worked nationally, and many state organizations had taken their structure. And so that’s what we did also. I and some other folks worked with Central Texas Legal Aid to get the incorporation documents together and get the corporation established as a Texas state corporation and get it tax-exempt. For many years, that’s all the organization was – just a few board members with no paid staff.

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